The Owl and the Reptiloid
For the second week of four free stories in July, Ian Tregillis’ “The Owl and The Reptiloid” examines a vision of first contact and what comes after. It's a dark tale of suicide and madness, and a bleak one, but we found that we couldn't look away. ~ Fran Wilde and Julian Yap, July 17, 2022.
The Owl and the Reptiloid
by Ian Tregillis
Edy is boarding the 147 at Foster, running late to a soul-rotting customer-service gig just off Michigan Avenue, when the Secret Masters grace Chicago with a Black Triangle of its very own. But at the historic moment, she’s earning a little sigh of disdain from the bus driver, thanks to some amateur-hour fumbling of her Ventra card.
“I’m not a tourist,” she explains, the embarrassment making her haughty. “Just high.”
(Ketamine, explains the devil on her shoulder, but of course the driver can’t hear this and wouldn’t care if he did.)
Though the 147 is a straight shot downtown, offering brief glimpses of the water now and then, she’s too far north to witness the craft materializing over Lake Michigan. Yet its presence is known, soon enough.
“They’re here!” whoops the dreadlocked white guy sitting across from her. He pumps his fist, raps a knuckle on his phone.
She focuses on her own phone, ignoring him. Though it’s only early June, the bus is stuffy and Dreadlocks looks to be the sweaty type. Best not to encourage him. But he doesn’t need outside validation; he’s perfectly self-actualized.
“Hells YES, my fellow earthlings. THEY are finally HERE.”
Nobody asks him the obvious questions, because the answers are equally obvious. Ever since that first isosceles-shaped hole in space appeared over Delhi, only one they has merited a celebratory whoop on the bus. And of course here does not mean Earth; it’s so much more personal than that.
Pings, dings, buzzes, and chimes echo through the bus. Alerts, tweets, texts, tiktoks, ’grams, and even a few old-school phone calls spread the news far and wide.
The woman to Edy’s left shatters a soft-spoken abuela vibe when she cackles, “Tough titties, San Francisco.” (For all its technological braggadocio, the Bay Area has yet to receive its own Triangle.) On her right, a man wearing a spiked dog collar drops his device as though it just confessed undying love and a desire for children, crosses himself, and launches into a high-speed prayer recitation.
In moments, Chicago’s UFO is all over Edy’s social media.
The first post she sees is two minutes old, a still of a jet-black wedge out over the water. Above and behind it, a theater-scrim sky of gray and blue. Beneath it, the whitecapped waves of Lake Michigan, doing what they always do. This was posted by a jogger on the lakefront; Edy recognizes the foreground. She quickly gets the sense that if she weren’t stoned right now, her familiarity with the path, and how the lake looks and behaves on days like today, would be filling her with awe as the pattern-recognition part of her ancient monkey brain interpolated the distance and size of the levitating object. But her shoulder devil is absolutely crushing an Oingo Boingo karaoke cover, which is pretty distracting.
She flips through dozens of photos like these, taken within moments of each other from spots as far north as Loyola Beach and as far south as Shedd Aquarium. A minute after that, the first skyscraper shots appear online. One from the seventieth floor of the Hancock Tower gives superb context: the city, the shore stippled with gawking ant-people, and an enormous inky not-quite-equilateral triangle hovering low over the water like a metaphorical middle finger to every kid who ever complained about the inanity of high school geometry class. (Edy wasn’t one of them. She cut class too often to pitch a fit over homework.)
Maybe cutting class isn’t such a bad idea today, suggests her raspy-voiced devil friend. So to speak.
And before she can gin up a perfunctory counterargument, the next post stops her dead. The three-minute-old video has already earned over seven thousand views: the Triangle approaching from out over the watery horizon, wreathed in shredded clouds as it descends. The silent hovering object disregards the gusting wind in a way no kite or balloon could do.
Mind made up, Edy taps the stop-request strip. It’ll likely be the final straw for the kindhearted and long-suffering Mr. Astadourian, who has tried time and again to help his wayward employee. She feels a tiny pang, knowing she’ll disappoint him one last time. (Counterpoint, offers her devil. Now you don’t have to let your buzz die.)
The bus merges into a UFO-induced traffic jam on Michigan. She gets off at Chestnut, then walks east until she hits the lake. There, Edy gazes upon the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. And that is saying something—she’s from Skokie.
She stares until the sun goes down.
That night, the dreams come.
* * *
Having come fashionably late to the party, the Windy City needn’t deal with the flaming wreckage of fighter jets crashing into schools, hospitals, and stadiums. Not like those early days when the first Triangles stationed themselves over Delhi, Johannesburg, Lagos, Vladivostok, Beijing, Shenzhen, Port Moresby, Jerusalem, Phnom Penh, the Amundsen–Scott Antarctic Research Station, and New York. A pair of crumpled F-18s splashed into the Hudson minutes after that last one arrived.
Putting aside the internet wingnuts who insist the videos of abortive military interventions are all faked by agents of the deep-state Illuminati and that the wounded civilians are just crisis actors, everybody knows the Black Triangles are the product of no earthly power.
They’re just something that happen from time to time. Like eclipses, comets, or earthquakes.
* * *
Edy arrives for her shift ten minutes early—and sober—in what feels like, and probably is, a first. But Books-A-Million is closed, the storefront still locked behind the security portcullis. Normally, she’d assume that she had spaced (yet again) on the fact that she had the opening shift. But, in another first, she’s too well rested and alert to succumb to the whispers of self-recrimination from the devil who lives rent-free on her shoulder.
She can’t even hear him this morning. He must’ve had an early meeting.
And anyway, responsible Tandy is already here. Tandy, with the Peter Pan collars and church swing choir that she never shuts up about. But today she’s wrapped in a gray woolen blanket, shivering on an early summer morning, wet eyes red. It’s a new look. Not great, frankly, but at least she’s trying.
Only then does Edy notice the ambulance, the police car, the milling crowd. She was too caught up in dreamy reminiscences on the stroll from the bus stop to notice.
A policewoman tries to intervene when Edy squints through the storefront glass.
“Do you work here, miss?”
“I did,” she says as two EMTs thread a gurney between blood-splashed spinner racks toward the alleyway delivery entrance at the rear of the store. “But I really kind of hated it,” she adds, in case the cop is curious.
The policewoman takes that in stride, assuming a detached yet vaguely compassionate tone as she relays some terrible news. But Edy has already pieced it together. This explains why she wasn’t fired.
The Secret Masters bestow three kinds of dreams.
Mr. Astadourian got one of the bad ones.
* * *
The Secret Masters’ gifts come in threes: one for each corner of their impossible craft, claims a YouTube explainer video. But nobody really knows; those videos are mostly empty speculation wrapped around mattress advertisements. Though to be fair, that’s more or less true of all media coverage of the Black Triangles. On the twenty-four-hour cable news channels, such as the one forever echoing through her mother and stepfather’s house like the background radiation of their senescence, it’s boner pills instead of mattresses. But otherwise the same.
* * *
Edy waits to change trains at the Howard station, en route north to Evanston, where her mother chose to run out the clock on her big empty life in a big empty house. (This does, Edy concedes, lend a thematic unity to the endeavor, like a dreary literary novel coming full circle to address its own thesis.)
Across the tracks, the southbound platform is packed with people heading into the city to gape and sigh, no doubt drawn by videos, dreams, and phantom music. Nobody seems to mind the crowding over there; many faces carry the beatific calm that Edy used to achieve only after getting stoned but which, thanks to the Secret Masters, she now feels even when sober.
She hasn’t heard from her shoulder devil in weeks. He vamoosed without so much as an It’s-been-real or a forwarding address. She doesn’t miss him. Midnight karaoke has lost its appeal.
The people on her own platform, the widely scattered northbounders, are similarly calm. Except the weeping woman, but everybody ignores her. There’s no helping some people. Edy knows. Folks used to say that about her, before the Secret Masters arrived, and it was true.
A crackling PA announces a delay on the southbound line owing to an obstruction on the tracks. Nobody groans or complains. She supposes the folks over there enjoy the music as much as she does, and appreciate the chance to listen a bit longer. A few people even dance. Edy does.
The Triangle brought geometry, mystery, and the harmony of the spheres. Edy thinks the music is how it flies, somehow. It’s propelled by, or levitated upon, celestial melodies that no human could compose. A song that can’t be recorded, reproduced, or even hummed without hearing it in real time.
Yet it pervades the city. Blanketing, even swaddling, but never suffocating. The Secret Masters’ music has supplanted the Bulls, the Bears, even the weather as the primary topic of small talk between complete strangers. It’s loudest and clearest at the lakeshore, of course. But she’s heard it claimed that if you close your eyes and cock your head just right, you can hear it as far out as the long-term parking at O’Hare.
The city is so much better—Edy is so much better—since the Secret Masters came.
A subtle shift of body language ripples through the platform. Edy leans forward, glimpses the lights of the approaching train. She sighs. It’s harder to hear the Secret Masters inside the screechy, clangy train. But her mother will nag until Edy makes the semiannual pilgrimage.
The train arrives, an armored bull charging through an orchestra pit. It’s loud. Really loud. Louder than she’s ever heard it.
“C’mon, don’t do that,” mutters a fellow northbounder.
Edy thinks this is a commentary on her dancing before she realizes the weeping woman is no longer weeping on the platform. The train horn blares and the screeching brakes toss up a rooster-tail of sparks, all in vain protest at being asked to do something physically impossible.
Edy texts her mother, explaining she’ll be late. There’s an obstruction on the tracks. Her mother will just have to understand.
The Triangle emits three kinds of music.
The weeping woman heard the bad one.
* * *
Humans being humans, there are those in the whack-job fringe who question the Secret Masters’ benevolence. They complain of night terrors and ominous voices. Most ignore them.
That certain parts of the world have gone quiet is of less concern. After all, isn’t this for the best? The Black Triangles deliver so many boons; surely world peace is one of them.
The Secret Masters bestow three kinds of dreams, share three kinds of music.
And in exchange for these multifarious gifts, they ask but a single favor.
* * *
Edy’s hands develop calluses.
This is a mystery, because in the weeks since Mr. Astadourian permanently closed the bookstore, she has spent her waking hours blissing out to unearthly harmonies either in her apartment, staring at the ceiling, or at the lake, staring at the Triangle. Her hands, strangers to anything resembling manual labor for her entire life, have done nothing more taxing than open a take-out container in months. (She still hasn’t received her final paycheck, so she charges the takeout to her mother’s credit card.)
She doesn’t know why her hands always smell like petrichor and ozone these days, only that they do. Except for the one time when they smelled like gasoline, which was extra weird because she hasn’t driven a car since her license was revoked years ago.
She aches all over.
* * *
By early September, forty-seven cities around the world have been graced by the Secret Masters. Meanwhile, three more Triangles have appeared over Lake Michigan, joining up with the first to build a single titanic object.
Beneath it, the Windy City changes, tangibly and intangibly. The skyline is different, somehow, yet nobody can quite remember how it used to look. The people who inhabit it are changing, too, though nobody can remember how they used to feel.
The streets and sidewalks are a bit less crowded each day.
* * *
It’s the middle of an autumn night when Edy awakes from one of the Secret Masters’ gift-dreams to find herself swinging a sledgehammer. The frisson of disorientation causes her to miss her target, the jagged end of a crumbling masonry wall. She stumbles about in a clumsy spiral. The floor of this unfamiliar space is littered with stone dust, nails, bent rebar, and bits of glass, but that’s okay. She’s wearing slippers.
“Hey, you,” says a gravelly voice. “Long time.”
The familiar rasp causes Edy a twinge of disquiet; it’s been months since she’s felt anything like that. Her personal devil is there in the pallid scaly flesh. Much scalier than she remembers, if she’s being honest.
But she plays it cool. “Where the hell have you been?”
(She has a pretty good guess. He’s been getting stoned and singing Oingo Boingo karaoke without her. Let him.)
“Mom died,” she feels compelled to add, in case he hasn’t looked at Instagram lately. “There was a fire.”
“I heard,” he says. He never sent his condolences, but in retrospect he always was a bit of a jerk.
He’s different. More scales, yet his horns are missing. And his eyes are disconcertingly large. Anime large.
“You’ve had some work done.”
Her devil glances around the demolition site, giggling.
“You could say so.”
She doesn’t get the joke. His tone is unpleasant. So is the way his lips don’t move when he speaks, as if she’s watching a badly dubbed movie.
The air is sharp with the scent of electrical discharge. Edy leans on the sledge like her stepfather did his cane. In addition to slippers, she realizes she’s also wearing her pajamas. This puts her better-off than some of the other laborers, who are naked. Their bare feet are bloody from walking through demolition debris, but they don’t seem to notice.
A new thought hits her. “Hey. Am I sleepwalking?”
“Haven’t you always? All of you?” He shrugs. “You’ll wake up soon enough. Brace yourself for the hangover.”
She hasn’t had one in months and doesn’t expect to start now. Besides, she’s an old pro. If it got bad enough, the old Edy would’ve taken some hair of the dog from her liquor cabinet (aka her refrigerator). And if it had been truly terrible, she would’ve rummaged the medicine cabinet (aka the vintage Holly Hobbie lunch box where she kept her erstwhile hobbies, ecstasy and ketamine and weed, oh my).
“Anyhoozle,” he lisps, tasting the air with a forked tongue (another unsettling change). “I’m taking off soon.”
“C’mon, don’t do that. It’s pathetic.” Like an ex-boyfriend who texts well after the fact just to reiterate that you’ve broken up.
He chuckles, inky eyes agleam. “Wanna come?”
This is unexpected. “Where?”
“Yes or no.”
Edy considers the offer while he hums along to the music of the spheres. She contemplates her future; he transitions from celestial melodies to the opening bars of “Dead Man’s Party.”
“It wouldn’t be a good fit,” she decides.
The ugly chuckle takes a hard edge. “Your loss.”
“Well, don’t let the door hit you on the—”
But he’s already walking away, wending past berobed carpenters and naked welders.
Your singing sucks, she thinks hard in his direction, and I only hung out with you because “Islands in the Stream” works better as a duet.
The buses and trains don’t run this late. In fact, they no longer run at all.
It’s a long walk home to Edy’s apartment.
* * *
The Delhi Triangle is the first to depart. It leaves silently and suddenly with no warning, just as it arrived. One moment, it’s hovering motionless over the ashes of a disassembled city. The next, it’s rising into the sky. Seconds later, it’s gone.
There are no social media posts about this. Just an automated webcam feed from Delhi Technological University.
Nobody sees it.
* * *
Edy walks down the center of DuSable Lake Shore Drive, or what’s left of it, an empty lunch box bouncing against her thigh. A cold spring wind, the breath of Lake Michigan, catches her off guard when it eels through the buttonholes of her stolen coat. She shivers, feeling like a tourist.
But the wind does clear away the smoke. That’s something.
A lone coyote yip-yips at her passage. Its friends respond from a few blocks back. They’ve been getting bolder, but have yet to give her grief.
A stone’s throw from Foster, an abandoned CTA bus slouches on four flat tires. Some of the windows are broken, but it hasn’t been torched. The sun is getting lower, the wind colder, the coyotes closer. Edy decides to overnight in the bus. It won’t be the first time she’s passed out on the 147.
She wriggles through a rear window, carefully at first, but as she expected, the shelter is unclaimed.
She hasn’t seen anybody in weeks, human or otherwise. She likes the solitude, she tells herself. She doesn’t like to think about what caused it, the millions of people who were given the bad dreams and the bad music before the Triangle departed.
The fire extinguisher stashed under the driver’s seat makes a suitable tool for bashing open the cash box/card reader. The few scraps of paper money, along with route maps and reader alert pamphlets scattered by the door, offer enough fuel for a brief small fire. She’s careful to fish out any Ventra cards first; the plasticky coating gives off fumes, but not the fun kind you can huff.
Tomorrow, she’ll raid a Jewel-Osco or GNC for more scurvy-be-gone pills. Plus anything that might be crushed and snorted. The Triangle left a painful emptiness in its wake; it took the good dreams and good music away too.
Darkness falls. Coyotes raise their voices in song. Not loud enough to cover the silence, though, so Edy joins in. They don’t know the words like her old karaoke partner did, but that’s okay. Her cover band jams late into the night.
She drowses in the wee hours, throat sore, wondering, as she sometimes does, what the Secret Masters’ favor had been. And if the offer to join them was real.
Merely existing day-to-day is neither blissful nor terrible. She sniffs the palms of her hands. Maybe this is how it felt to receive the Secret Masters’ third kind of gift, the dreams and music that kept the city functioning until they no longer needed it to do so.
Still, Edy reminds herself, it could be a lot worse. It’s not like she has to go to work in the morning.
Thank you for joining The Sunday Morning Transport’s journey this week.
Ian Tregillis is the author of seven novels and numerous short stories. A physicist who lives in New Mexico, he swears his day job does not involve reverse-engineering UFOs.
The Sunday Morning Transport is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work and our authors, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Subscribe now